By Tadhg Peavoy
Could Ireland ask for any more from an opening match to the RBS 6 Nations? Not really.
Three tries, and a comprehensive 22-point victory over Scotland is about as good as they could have asked for.
Scotland turned up for about 40 minutes in Dublin, and then Ireland upped the gears and moved into the distance, leaving their northern Celtic rivals trailing in the dirt. It’s been a familiar sight for Scottish teams in Dublin since the turn of the millennium and in truth, was an expected result.
That Ireland won by 22 points was the surprise, as I think few expected the tie to be as much of a stroll as it proved in the end.
That said, David Denton was very unlucky not to get across in the corner, and Greig Laidlaw should have struck a penalty early on. If those two scores had been taken, a 14-point victory would have been recorded, which was more in keeping with predictions.
Wales come to Dublin next Saturday as a much more potent threat and Ireland will have to improve significantly to beat the Principality.
Ireland’s performance at the breakdown, and the set pieces, was adequate on Sunday, but their inability to dominate the Scots early on was worrying.
Against Wales - or France or England - if Ireland concede possession and territory in the same manner, they won’t get away with it.
That trio of sides will punish Ireland on the scoreboard, and leave them with an uphill battle to claw their way back into the tie.
With this in mind, Joe Schmidt will need to ensure Ireland start against Wales next Saturday with the same intensity that they finished the tie against Scotland.
They need to dominate the collision and make Wales play on the back foot in the first quarter.
The men in green did plenty right against Scotland though, and for that they must be praised.
Jonathan Sexton managed the game superbly, and was the standout outhalf of the weekend. Outside him, Brian O’Driscoll’s defence was outstanding, and the back three of Andrew Trimble, Rob Kearney and Dave Kearney was a constant threat.
Despite the Scottish pack’s best efforts, as a collective unit, they lacked the physicality and ability to damage Ireland at the breakdown.
Wales stuttered to victory over Italy and looked far from their best, which will give hope to Irish supporters. But they got the two points and will be glad to get such a physical encounter out of the way early on in the championship.
Italy really put it up to the defending champions and their ability to disrupt Wales at the breakdown and in turn slow down Welsh possession is exactly what Ireland need to do at the Aviva next Saturday.
Out back, Italy also managed to do damage to the Welsh. Michele Campagnaro’s first try proved one thing conclusively: if a team can get the ball wide early on, and use the space in behind the wingers and centres, Wales can be hurt. The Ireland back three next week will be tasked with repeating this method of attack, and it could prove very rewarding avenue for Joe Schmidt’s team.
While Italy battled strongly at the breakdown and used their width well, their use of possession was inadequate. They spent 45% of the first half, and 47% of the second half, in Welsh territory. This is enough time to win a game away from home in the Six Nations.
The truth is that Wales forced them into making too many errors. The Azzurri only had a 67% tackle completion rate compared to Wales’ 100%. They also lost three scrums on their own put-in and made three unforced errors.
These stats highlight the pressure the Italians were put under in Cardiff. If Ireland are to win their second outing of the championship, they must perform far better in these areas, most especially defence.
If Mike Phillips, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny are given space, and Ireland fall off tackles, the continuity of the Welsh game, offloading at will, and supporting in numbers, will destroy Ireland.
Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate were fantastic for Wales against Italy, and with Sam Warburton also vying to start next week, Wales are immensely strong in the back row.
Sean O’Brien’s loss to injury is a factor for Ireland for the whole of this tournament. And although Chris Henry and Peter O’Mahony played out of their skins against Scotland, they will face a far sterner examination of their international credentials against Wales. They need to up their game yet again.
If Ireland can deliver in all of these key areas then they have a fantastic chance of derailing Wales in Dublin and going to Twickenham with two wins from two.